Arrested Development is back! The Emmy Award winning, critically acclaimed comedy had its original run unceremoniously canceled in 2006, when Fox aired the final four episodes of season three during the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics. Like anyone who spent the last seven years rewatching the entire series multiple times, I’ve been looking forward to watching the new episodes since they were officially announced last year. So when they came out on Netflix Sunday afternoon, I wasted little time sleeping or working and immediately started watching. Here are some spoiler-free thoughts on the new episodes.
Arrested Development was the single most rewatchable show in history. The writers connected things so well, both within a single episode and across multiple seasons, that perceptive viewers were rewarded on a second, third, and fourth viewing. It was as much a game as a television experience, as fans searched for every little detail we could find. In the new episodes it seems to be the focus of the writers to connect every detail meticulously. Scenes are repeated in multiple episodes from multiple points of view, unveiling exactly what was happening slowly but surely over the course of the eight hours or so of new show. In fact, eight hours is probably closer to six or seven due to all the repeated scenes, though the payoff gets better each time. The new season is full of the kind of background action and sight gags that the fanbase loves. I had only watched a few episodes when I made plans to watch them all again this weekend.
These new episodes are funny. There is no shortage of callbacks to old jokes, and the new material is still as clever as anything on television (er, Netflix). There have always been great names (George Michael, Gob, Maeby/Shirley), but they really outdo themselves with some of the new folks. And the new characters themselves are actually quite strong, with a number of them every bit as good as any recurring characters from the original run. The Bluths themselves generally look like worse humans than we last saw heading down old South America way, but then laughing at terrible people always has been a foundational part of comedy. Moments of season four are as funny as anything I’ve seen on television since season three.
The strength of the original series was built on the backs of the characters interacting with each other in so many different ridiculous ways. When the entire family was in on an act, it often led to great moments of hilarious Bluth chaos. For whatever reason (scheduling conflicts, most likely) the new season has few scenes of more than two or three main players together. Some strong new characters were introduced to help fill some of the space, but other gaps were filled by some of the least compelling recurring characters from the original run. Lucille 2 is great when she’s got the dizzies, but she isn’t a protagonist.
The new season is structured with each episode focusing on one main character, some getting a double helping. Unfortunately, this shines a harsh light on the limits of some of our beloved Bluths. For the first three seasons, it turns out, Michael was keeping more than the family together. Season four gives us one episode about a mother, or a daughter, or a son-in-law, or a niece, or maybe the original son this time, but without Michael in the center it really starts to unravel. George Sr. in particular has trouble carrying two episodes on his own, and putting them both near the beginning of the season made it glaringly obvious. By marginalizing Michael for episodes at a time, the creative team made a huge mistake.
The new episodes are weird. There are a few running jokes that come from nowhere and lead directly back, and some moments are darker than anything we’ve seen before. Most of the Bluths haven’t had a great last few years, and it’s not always fun to watch them spiral toward the horrible places they seem to be heading. (Let me be clear: it’s very funny. Just not always fun.) The first handful of episodes are the weakest of the bunch, and among the worst of all four seasons. I like a lot of the new characters, but Young Lucille and George (Kristen Wiig and Seth Rogen) are unsettling. There were a number of jokes with a racial component that I’m not sure what to make of, adding to the discomfort. Ron Howard’s narration is generally as good as ever, but sometimes he seems to be making up for things that they forgot to have the characters do or say. The challenge of fitting five years of story into fifteen episodes was daunting, no doubt, but keeping track of the year proved difficult at times. It would be unrealistic to expect everything to work like it did in 2006, but a few scenes stick out rather than stand out.
Which brings me to the ending. No spoilers, other than to say it doesn’t really end. The final episode is as funny as any of the new season, but as you feel the clock ticking toward 30 minutes, it becomes obvious that no tidy resolution is on the way. The loose ends are going to fuel speculation of a film, and I hope it happens, but if this is the end, I suppose I’m OK with it. The reality is that we got fifteen more episodes than we used to have. Season four is every bit as bingeable as the first three, even if the first few episodes are more setup than punchline. (Maybe after memorizing the important parts they’ll be easier to skip…) The joy of watching Arrested Development has always been in the laugh that came a beat after the joke, or after the second (third) time through. Occasionally you’ll notice how much older everyone looks, and how empty the model home and penthouse feel with only two people there. Then Tobias will open his mouth and you’ll remember why this show was so great to begin with. I know I’ll be on the couch again this weekend, looking for whatever becomes the blue handprint or Come on! of season four.